It's About The People
Within days of arriving in Sudan we knew we were among some of the world's most gracious people. It started with the immigration officer who welcomed us, helped speed up the arduous process of obtaining a visa, and exchanged currency for us discreetly at a black market rate. The warmth continued when we were enthusiastically greeted by Ibrahim, who represented our tour operator, Italian Tourism Company, and then at our hotel, where everyone made sure we were happy and content.
|ONE OF THE MANY BEAUTIFUL WOMEN AT THE GUEST HOUSE|
While touring the city, I don't remember an instance when someone didn't smile at me first or smile at me after I smiled at him or her. People riding buses waved at us. Some gave us a thumbs up sign. Kids on the street turned to look, waving and shouting something to us that sounded friendly, even though we had no idea what they said. At the same time, our guide, Laura, cautioned us never to take photos of the police, military or government buildings, or even bridges, which could lead to trouble. But, to our surprise, a man wearing a police uniform asked if we would take his picture with him standing next to one of us. We were in a courtyard of a restaurant where we had just finished lunch, so the man may have taken liberties with us in that location where he wouldn't be seen. Given Laura's warning, he never would have been so friendly to us on the street. White faces like ours were a novelty and attracted attention.
|THIS LITTLE ONE WASN'T SURE ABOUT OUR WHITE FACES|
On the university campus where we visited, many students, mainly young women, approached us and asked in English What brings you to Khartoum? They were as eager to take photos of us with their mobile phones as we were of them. One student, in particular, stood out. Khalid finished graduate school where he majored in human rights. While his dream was to work in the United States, he was happy to have a job as a teaching assistant at the law school. We saw more female students than male, and were surprised to learn that women have a better chance of landing a job than a man. Our positive reactions were quickly diminished when we learned that the reason was because beauty ranks higher than brains.
|THESE UNIVERSITY STUDENTS WERE EAGER TO TALK WITH US|
In Khartoum's busy market one man vigorously shook my hand and welcomed me to his country. "Sudan loves America, and we are very close," he said with conviction. I thanked him for his kind words, and then as we walked away, I said to Bruce, "That man has no idea what he's talking about. Obviously he doesn't know the U.S. has sanctions against his country, and our State Department discourages citizens from traveling to Sudan."
|HANGING OUT WITH FRIENDS ON THE STREET|
The Nubian people in the northern deserts were friendly too, more reserved perhaps, but still smiling and happy to share a little of themselves with us, even though only a few of them spoke English. The staff at the guesthouse worked hard to please us, but this high level of hospitality was not just about doing their job. This is who these people are.
|THIS WAS OUR SUV DRIVER POSING WITH A BABY GOAT|
When we returned home, some of our friends asked two simple questions: Were you scared traveling in Sudan? How did you get those people to pose for your photos? Some of our friends have called us crazy, but then they are the same ones who have called us crazy before.
I must repeat what I wrote in previous posts. We always felt safe in the areas of Sudan where we traveled. We did not go to South Sudan, Darfur or the Blue Nile States. Had we included those uncertain areas on our itinerary, then the moniker of crazy would definitely be justified.
|BEAUTIFUL WOMEN I PHOTOGRAPHED AT THE SUFI RITUAL|
As some of you know, taking portraits of people appeals to me more than shooting landscapes, although in the northern desert there was ample opportunity to do both. I always tried to ask permission as gracefully as possible, using sign and body language, if I didn't think they understood me. I often showed people the pictures I had taken the day before. Some times when I received a positive nod, the person felt the need to pose, and when they did, they often took on a serious face. Others didn't have the time or the interest to pose, and that's when I either took a lousy photo or I was just plain lucky. Other photographers in our group pointed out how best to capture the light and stressed the importance of the subject's background. As I have learned from experienced photographers on past trips, every photo we take should be considered a practice.
|SHE WAS TOO BUSY AND I WAS JUST LUCKY|
Our guide Laura had a bag of tricks up her sleeve and knew the way to take us to places that were off limits to visitors, like excavated tombs. She also got us invited to local people's homes for lunch or chai tea, and although some of her magic came from sweet talk and cigarettes, most of it came from the strong and caring relationships she built with the Sudanese people over time. Clearly Laura was adored, but as she wrote me after reading my blog post Chapter One, She was never a queen in her past life. A princess maybe, or a nomad.
|A NUBIAN FAMILY WE VISITED AT THEIR HOME|
"When we travel in the desert today," Laura would say, "we cannot be certain to find where the nomads are, but if we are lucky, I want you to do what I say. Stay in your cars until I say it's okay, and then come out one or two at a time and do not start taking pictures right away. Give the people time to check you out." We nodded in agreement, taking her warning to heart because we knew that our brief time with the nomads would be precious encounters that we would long remember, and the last thing we wanted to do was scare them away.
After a couple of hours of traveling off road in sand and stopping only long enough to find a small dune or a bush behind which to pee, we came upon our first glimpse of a nomadic family out there in the middle of nowhere. All four of our vehicles stopped a few hundred feet from the two or three huts built of sticks. Laura got out first and approached a man who walked towards her to see who we were and what we wanted. This was the time for Laura to use her sweet talk and magic. We saw the man light up the cigarette that Laura offered and soon they began to talk. None of us could hear the conversation, nor would we have been able to understand Arabic, but this is what we thought she was saying.
Hello, I am traveling here in your beautiful desert with some people who live a long ways away. They would like to meet you and shake your hand. They have gifts for you and your family. And, by the way, they have cameras and would like to take your picture.
|WAITING FOR THE GREEN LIGHT|
A minutes later Laura signaled for a few of us to come and the rest of us to follow slowly. Behind the man but staying close to their huts, the women and a few children watched what was going on with curiosity, but soon they walked forward to see us too. We spoke to them sotta voce, using the few Arabic greetings we knew. "Salamalikium," we said. Laura spoke a few more Arabic words to the man and they both laughed, and then he said something to the women. And they laughed too. We were all smiling and laughing. This was good.
|RUNNING TO SEE WHAT'S GOING ON|
What happened next was heartwarming. An older women took the hand of a younger woman in our group and lead her over to her stick hut to show her where she lived. We all followed like little sheep.
|SHE WAS VERY PROUD OF HER HUT|
|SHOWING OFF HER HUT|
That's when Laura gave us the word that taking photographs would be o.k. They seemed to enjoy having us visit. No one minded the camera, and a few even posed. When they saw themselves on the camera screen, it wasn't clear whether they had ever seen their faces before. One woman pointed to the little girl and said something which we took to mean, That's you, because the little girl smiled. That's when I realized that small hand mirrors would have made great gifts. I also wished I had a Polaroid camera. People in our group pulled out the gifts they'd brought from home: tee shirts, blouses, and scarves, which we hoped the women would like, but we felt bad when we realized we didn't bring a gift for the man, who honestly didn't seem to mind. I also had a handful of perfume samples that a Nordstrom's saleswoman gave to me before I left. These perfumes had a short life as they were just smears on a card hidden under a tab, which, when pulled, would expose the sweet smelling perfume. In an effort to explain to the women what this was and how to access the perfume smear, I held the card in my left hand, and pretended to tug on the tab with my right, as I said the words, Pull the tab, pull the tab. I also demonstrated with my hands. Pull the tab, touch the card, dab the sweet-smelling perfume behind your ears. The only sounds they could hear were my words pull the tab. Of course they had no idea what I was trying to say or explain, but they had fun laughing and mimicking my words saying pooldatub, pooldatub. Fortunately, I had previously explained to our driver how the perfume card worked and the need to pull the tab, so I asked him to explain what the women had to do to access the perfume. He said some words in Arabic and then he showed them, as I did, to pull the tab. They giggled, saying pooldatub and then laughed harder. This, of course, had me laughing too, but I was so grateful that they finally got what I meant when I said pooldatub.
|PULLDATUB (She's holding the white perfume card in her hand)|